Friday, May 24, 2013

Goodbye Bibi

Yesterday, standing on top of the roof of the Harry S. Truman Centre for Peace at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University, an Israeli colleague of Richard's showed us an area to the east known as E1. Perhaps the most potent symbol of Palestinian-Israeli divisions in the West Bank, it stretches from the edges of East Jerusalem annexed in 1967 to Ma'ale Adummim, a large Israeli settlement located east of the pre-1967 green line. In between is an Arab village, several Bedouin encampments and perhaps the busiest and most controversial police station in all of the Middle East.

The settlements are especially sensitive politically, as their further expansion would effectively encircle Arab East Jerusalem, dividing it from the rest of the West Bank and preventing contiguous access between Palestinian-controlled areas in the north (Ramallah) and the south (Bethlehem). This obviously makes it much more difficult to reach agreement about permanent borders in the region, something likely not lost on US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has come to town just as we're leaving to try to kickstart the stalled peace process, with Netanyahu's heel-dragging on halting further settlements like Ma'ale Adummim being a main order of business.

The roof of the Truman Centre actually gives one a 360-degree view of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean Hills, and Menachem also showed us the hill due south which is Herodium, resting place of King Herod the Great, who gave the Jews the Second Temple, but was also a dutiful servant of Rome. These complexities are brought out in a superb exhibition on the man currently running at the Israel Museum. The region's great builder, Herod's architectural legacy--including Masada (which I visited the day before), the port of Caesarea (with its hippodrome and ampitheatre, and currently home to the region's current imperial prefect, Prime Minister Bibi), and of course the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif in Old Jerusalem--is itself historically contiguous with present-day ethnic and religious tensions. This is perhaps nowhere more materially evident than in the controversial and heavily monitored Mugrabi Gate walkway one must take to get from the Jews' holiest site in Jerusalem--the Western Wall--to the Arabs'--the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The gate was to have been on the agenda of UNESCO inspectors during a planned tour of the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif until Israeli officials cancelled the visit, contending the Palestinians had overly politicized the issue.

Myself, standing on the Truman Centre roof, I couldn't help thinking that the intersections and oppositions between the three major religions that have historically staked their claims to the region could be explained in part by the inhospitable landscape, each's follwers emerging out of the surrounding desert to vie for control of Jerusalem and its valuable watershed. At the very least, given how unyielding the earth generally is here, it is no wonder that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all had to invent heavenly paradises.

Kerry certainly has his work cut out for him, just like previous American envoys. And it's hard, given what we've seen, not to feel cynical (worst, most despair-inducing image: the colour-coded water tanks atop residents' houses--white for Israeli, black for Palestinian--in order to indicate or guard against, as the case may be, rocket attacks).

But then again, like I did in the Dead Sea two days ago, hope floats. It's been a very instructive trip, but now it's time to go home.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Travels with David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, and Ohad Naharin

At breakfast at our hotel in Tel Aviv two days ago, I read in the Jerusalem Post--following an item about Toronto mayor Rob Ford apparently being caught on video smoking crack (!)--that David Beckham was retiring from the football pitch at age 38. Funny how Becks has remained such a trusted traveling companion all these years (see chapter 3 of World Stages, Local Audiences for more about what I mean by this), his global brand iconicity punctuating the performance (and the politics) of some of my more significant trans-Atlantic voyages.

Appropriate, then, that at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which is currently featuring a retrospective of Scottish artist Douglas Gordon's work, I should have lingered longest over Zidane, the film he co-directed with Philippe Parreno (see my entry two posts ago on his conceptualization of the Duchamp show at the Barbican in London). Using 17 synchronized cameras, Gordon and Parreno follow the French footballer in real time throughout the course of a single match. It's mesmerizing, even at its most banal, when Zidane is just standing around with nothing to do (which happens to be a lot of the time). So recognizable with his bald pate, Zidane here gets a media memorialization befitting his athletic genius, unlike the famous head-butt that marked his exit from the 2006 World Cup and, as it turned out, from professional competition.

Zidane is one of the few visible Arabs I have so far seen in Tel Aviv, virtual or otherwise. Granted, our movements have mostly been confined to the more touristic enclaves of the city. However, I am surprised at the extent to which the Jewish and Arab populations remain segregated here, with the latter clearly the underclass (along with Africans and Fillipinas) that, together with foreign dollars, keeps this false economy afloat. Even the most casual and superficial of glances at the heartbreaking state of disrepair in which most of the Bauhaus-designed buildings of Tel Aviv's UNESCO-designated White City find themselves (although the bucolic photo below belies this statement), or at the numbers of young people who are clearly unemployed, indicates that, beyond money for the military, there is almost no infrastructural support in Israel.

Of course the cultural divide in the region was not always the norm. The old port of Jaffa stands as testament to a time when Arabs and Jews lived and worked and played side by side, a legacy whose traces remain in a shared architectural style, shared cuisine, shared gestures and shared warmth of human interaction. All that came to an end, however, with the Balfour Declaration (there's so much for which we can blame the British), one consequence of which was the founding of the first settlements of what would eventually become Tel Aviv by Jews fleeing the Arab uprisings in Jaffa. Today the Arab Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa works to repair some of the consequences of that history (see photo below)  and, sitting a stone's throw from where Perseus is said to have rescued Andromeda from the rocks to which she had been tied by her father, speaks eloquently to the power and politics of performance.

Those first settlements of Tel Aviv in the 1920s were in the area known as Neve Tzedek, which today retains its turn-of-the-century charm (narrow winding streets, old low buildings opening onto hidden courtyards), only now supplemented by trendy boutiques and restaurants. Tucked away along Shabazi Street in this area is the Suzanne Dallal Centre, home to Batsheva Dance Company, whose current world premiere, The Hole, by Artsitic Director and choreographic genius Ohad Naharin, Richard and I took in last night.

The piece is site-specific, made in direct response to the unique and intimate Varda Hall, where Batsheva performs much of its work. To this end, the hall--which I imagine is a fairly standard square studio space, has in this instance been transformed into an octagonal, with an eight-sided elevated stage in the middle, and with the audience distributed evenly around it. The action, however, begins above and behind the audience, as, soon after the lights dim, eight male dancers emerge from hidden crawl spaces and begin a sequence of simple, spotlit unison movements on narrow platforms. During the course of our 360-degree survey of the men, the women emerge, stealthily crawling upon the stage, each taking an odalisque position at one of its eight lips, head in hand, knees bent and hanging over the edge. In sync, each woman lifts her upper leg, eventually letting herself fall onto her back in a kind of supine toe-to-toe plié, before lifting her right leg over her left, letting it fall with a thud to the floor, and twisting herself into a panther pose and crawling to the next side of the octagonal. This continues for a full turn or more around the stage, the eight women above eventually being joined by a ninth below, her initially unnoticed appearance just one indication of how much there is to take in with this piece.

The Hole is essentially a showcase for Batsheva's female dancers, and Naharin has composed some stunning sequences for the nine-member corps that in their simplicity, repetition and canny combining of kinespheric and scenic space give everyone in the audience an up-close view of what's so captivating about expertly executed unison movement. Of special note in this regard is the section in which the women lie down together on successive lips of he stage, their legs hanging over the edge. They then repeat a sequence of serial movements, raising their heads, lifting their torsos, bending an elbow, turning onto their sides, and finally lifting themselves up one by one to move, in a hunched position, to the next side of the stage, where they will repeat the same sequence all over again. That, at this point in the piece, harpsichord music by Couperin is playing on the soundtrack only adds to the hypnotic effect.

Elsewhere, each of the women is given a chance to shine in improvisational solos, as walking counterclockwise around the edge of the stage they one by one take their turn in the centre, angling their limbs asymmetrically not just to their individual bodily cores, but to the geographical nexus of the group as a whole. Bearing this out, after each woman has had her chance to develop a unique movement phrase, the group devolves en masse into a riot of competing physical stylings and poses, with several of the women actually interrupting, blocking, or otherwise seeking to thwart their fellow dancers' movements.

The men, stuck on their platforms, do their best to compete for our attention, at one point erupting into preening, vogue-like, look-at-me poses that end with them shirtless, tongues hanging out, shamelessly soliciting our voyeuristic gaze. I understand that at occasional performances Naharin switches things up, putting the men on stage and the women against the walls. I have no idea if the choreography remains the same; regardless, it would be interesting to compare the effect. Not least because the men and women, who do interact at certain points from the distance of their respective spatial positions in a literal call and response manner, eventually come together--or at least partly, and not altogether predictably.

I refer to the fact that the men, having dispappeared at a certain point into the walls from which they first emerged, later reappear above us, crawling out in turn from what looks like a giant sewer pipe and spidering out onto the maze of metal pipes that sits just below the ceiling of Varda Hall. While the women continue to dance below, the men lie in wait, eventually slipping their bodies through the pipes to hang by their arms above the women. However, only one of them drops down to the stage, thereafter enacting a tentative duet with one of the women, neither partner quite knowing what to make of the other, nor what to do with their limbs, their respective reaches always exceeding--and just missing--the other's grasp. When the men lower themselves from the rafters a second time, the one among them who releases himself is caught by the women, from whose embrace he then seeks to free himself, flinging himself off the stage, only to be caught by the women again and again. They do not wish to tear him apart, like crazed Bacchanites, nor lure him to his death like the vengeful Wilis from Giselle. Rather, they introduce him to one among them, and this time the two opposite-sex bodies come together in a quietly affecting duet that ends with the men remaining above dropping little crystals that pop and crack when they hit the stage floor. Wedding rice? Hail stones? The meaning isn't immediately clear. Still, the piece ends on a graceful note, as the men lower eight swings onto the stage, which the women promptly climb upon, progressively launching their bodies out over the audience as the lights slowly dim.

As this closing image suggests, The Hole is perhaps more visually memorable than choreographically coherent, Naharin clearly in thrall to the site for which he composed the work. But there can be no denying the power of seeing the Batsheva dancers on such an intimate scale in their home venue. A performance memory of worked-through situatedness to cherish, and to set alongside--if not entirely dispel--the starker images of ethnic and religious division and uprootedness I have accumulated since moving from Tel Aviv to Jeruslaem, from whence I write this blog entry.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What the #!&?

Writing from the Levant (in Istanbul en route to Tel Aviv), trying to understand what happened in the BC provincial election.

Did the pollsters just get the numbers terribly wrong, or did Christy Clark's relentlessly negative campaign work on a gullible electorate?

Four more years of that woman and her Cheshire grin: it makes one despair for the arts, for education, for the environment, for everything I thought I was supporting in casting my ballot early.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Theatre Machines: Helen Mirren and Alan Turing

The news in London theatre right now is the Queen's row with the drumming protestors. It seems that during a recent performance of The Audience, Peter Morgan's new play about Elizabeth II's weekly meetings with a succession of her Prime Ministers, Dame Helen Mirren, once again winning plaudits and awards for playing the monarch (she won her Oscar for The Queen, also written by Morgan, and has just taken home an Olivier Award for this West End performance), interrupted the proceedings to walk off stage and out the door in order to tell off a crowd whose drumming could be heard inside. No hard feelings on either side, and the incident has been preserved for posterity on film, as the protestors had invited along a documentary film crew. Indeed, given the recent announcement that the real Queen would be cutting back her foreign travel and ceding more responsibility for such duties to Charles, the whole event gives rise to an intriguing--and no doubt far more entertaining--alternative to said plan: send Dame Helen instead!

We haven't gone in for any of the big West End shows on this trip, opting instead for our one live performance outing so far to see an intimate musical about Alan Turing called The Universal Machine, currently on at the tiny New Diorama Theatre near Regent's Park. I confess that it first peaked my interest because I thought its writer and director, David Byrne, was that David Byrne, and that the former Talking Heads frontman was opening his second experimental musical in as many months on this side of the Atlantic following the rapturous reception his take on Imedlda Marcos, Here Lies Love, has received at the Public Theatre in New York. Turns out, however, the David Byrne who is the Artistic Director of the NDT is somebody completely different, although equally gifted, it would seem, when it comes to developing and staging a new work of musical theatre about a complicated biographical subject who only wanted to be loved.

The Universal Machine, with a score by Dominic Brennan, and starring the terrific Richard Delaney in the lead role, condenses the story of Turing's tortured genius into three main episodes: his time as a public schoolboy at Sherbourne, where his immersion in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics is matched only by his youthful infatuation with an older classmate, Chris; his work at Bletchley Park during the war, where, building upon his earlier prototype for the Universal Turing Machine (the forerunner of the modern computer), he was instrumental in developing electromechanical techniques for cracking coded messages sent by the Nazis on their Enigma Machine, thus saving millions of Allied lives in the Battle of the Atlantic; and his postwar conviction for gross indecency, which resulted in his chemical castration and eventual suicide from cyanide poisoning.

Byrne uses snappy narrative exposition and stylized movement sequences to telegraph in an effective and economic manner these major plot points, while at the same giving us a series of quiet--and quietly moving--scenes between the emotionally conflicted Alan (who longs to build a machine that can feel for him) and those with whom he has his closest, those still coded, relationships: Chris at school; the co-worker from Bletchley he almost marries; and, of course, his mother Sara (the brilliant Judith Paris), who counselled her son to deny he was gay, and who later refused to believe he committed suicide, saying as much in print as Turing's first biographer.

Stylistically, the songs also straddle this structure, sometimes (as with a traditional chorus) functioning as an extension of the narration, or else commenting on the action, and sometimes offering us more insight into the interior life of our characters, especially mother and son. And herein lies my one, somewhat serious, quibble with the piece as it currently stands. Sara, as played by Paris, is such a dominant presence whenever she's on stage, and the song she sings and later reprises to convince herself to believe her "white lies" about her son is so emotionally climactic, that she tends to thwart a full empathetic connection on the audience's part with her necessarily withholding son, despite Delaney's own heartbreaking solo about the stolen moments of intimacy he steals with the young men he meets on his yearly trips out of repressed Britain.

Given Sara Turing's role in constructing--and simultaneously obfuscating--the posthumous narrative
around her brilliant son, there may be some biographical justification for this choice. However, in theatrical terms, it does mean that our spectatorial loyalties remain divided, with Alan's interior emotional life as a gay man remaining at war with his public persona as a war hero.

Let's hope that a full pardon eventually remedies that. In the meantime, The Universal Machine remains a richly satisfying work on a number of levels. And, having seen it, it will make all the more enjoyable our trip to Bletchley Park tomorrow.


After Duchamp

At the Barbican Centre in London (where Richard and I are currently), as part of their "Dancing around Duchamp" season, the art gallery is showcasing through June 9th a stunning show called "The Bride and the Bachelors." It highlights the influence of Marcel Duchamp on John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, as well as the creative exchanges Duchamp's work and friendship fuelled between the four younger artists across a variety of media.

A highlight for me were the sets that Johns and Rauschenberg designed for several of Cunningham's dance pieces, including Walkaround Time (1968), which Johns based on Duchamp's Large Glass, a replica of which serves as a centrepiece to the exhibition. Then there's the string of bicycle wheels and chairs that Rauschenberg designed for Cunningham's Travelogue (1977), an homage to Duchamp's first readymade, which I featured in The Objecthood of Chairs, and the sight of which here (again, not the original) nearly caused me to burst into tears.

Also featured are several of Cage and Duchamp's scores, excerpts of which play throughout the show, along with other audio compositions, including metteur-en-scene Philippe Parreno's recordings of dancers' feet as they perform Cunningham's choreography. In lieu of an actual live dance performance (which happen on Thursdays and weekends only), this was the next best thing.

My only complaint is that gender and sexuality were completely absent from the narrative of this show, notwithstanding the coded "bachelors" reference in the title, and despite the images of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy throughout the show. Having just come from the Man Ray show at the National Portrait Gallery, where images of a young, very beautiful, and very androgynous Duchamp were abundant, it struck me that one of the additional appeals of this creative genius to four young gay artists in 1950s America would have been the way he made the performance of sexual identity a central part of his oeuvre.

Also on in the Curve Gallery on the ground floor of the Barbican is an installation by Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer called "The Surgeon and the Photographer." Made up of hundreds of hand puppets "dressed" with cut-out images from second-hand books and magazines collected by the artist, and supplemented by a found audio score and projected visual index of Farmer's source images, the work is a dizzying mash-up of iconographic human "types." I had seen an earlier version of this work at the National Gallery of Canada in 2009. Here, in expanded form, and juxtaposed against Duchamp, it takes on added significance. A major work by a major artist.